Tennessee Gov. Lee eyes signing transgender bathroom bill, other measures into law

Staff file photo / Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee

NASHVILLE - Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, who has already signed into law two measures limiting transgender and LGBTQ rights approved by fellow Republicans in the legislature, says he anticipates signing several more as they reach his desk.

Among those the governor said he is likely to sign is a school bathroom bill, the "Tennessee Accommodations for All Children Act," or House Bill 1233/Senate Bill 1367, sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Mike Bell, R-Riceville and Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville.

Nashville, state and national LGBTQ groups charge the bill is part of a "2021 Slate of Hate" of measures pushed by Republicans. Bell, who has sponsored past bills along the same theme, rejects that and says the legislation provides a solution for difficult issues faced by students, teachers, staff and parents.

The legislation opens public schools and districts to being sued if officials allow transgender students, teachers and employees to use bathrooms, locker rooms and similar facilities designated for the sex opposite of what their birth certificate shows. Schools, however, can avoid a lawsuit if they provide "reasonable accommodations" such as single-occupancy bathrooms to students and staff who object to sharing multi-use facilities.

The bill "provides equal access to every student. It's a reasonable accommodation, it allows for accommodation for every student regardless of their gender," Lee said following a tour of a Nashville public charter school on Tuesday. "I think that's a smart approach to the challenge. And I'll be signing that."

Legislative fiscal analysts took a pass on trying to estimate the measure's costs, writing that was "due to multiple unknown factors, the extent and a timing of civil litigation that may occur as a result of this legislation," adding it "cannot be precisely estimated; therefore, the fiscal impact to state and local expenditures cannot reasonably be determined."

But Lee appeared hesitant about another restroom bill - this one impacts businesses as well as public entities - calling it "one of these bills" that "I haven't fully made a decision about."

That measure, HB1182/SB 1224, sponsored by Rep. Tim Rudd, R-Murfreesboro, and Sen. Paul Rose, R-Covington, would apply to public and private entities, including businesses, that are open to the general public.

If they allow access to transgender people, public and private entities would be required to post post 8-inch-by-6-inch, red-and-yellow notices at the entrance of each public restroom and entrance. Signs must state whether they allow a member of either biological sex to use any public restroom with language warning "this facility maintains a policy of allowing the use of restrooms by either biological sex, regardless of the designation on the restroom."

The Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBTQ advocacy group, says a "record-shattering" number of anti-LGBTQ measures have already passed state legislatures in Tennessee and other states in 2021, exceeding 2015 totals when 15 anti-LGBTQ bills were enacted.

As of Friday, 18 such measures are now law in a number of states, with Tennessee, Arkansas, Montana and Texas among the "most egregious drivers of discriminatory legislation this year," according to the Human Rights Campaign.

Another seven anti-LGBTQ bills are on governors' desks awaiting signature or veto and several more are continuing to move through state legislatures across the U.S., the group says.

In a May 6 letter to the Tennessee governor, Susan Robertson, president and CEO of the American Society of Association Executives, which plans to hold its 2022 convention in Nashville, called on the governor to veto the Rudd/Rose measure.

Robertson said it "promotes mistreatment of a targeted LGBTQ population and threatens to give rise to state-sanctioned discrimination in Tennessee."

"Proponents of this bill may believe it is narrowly focused, but the reality is that it has garnered national attention and broadcasts an unflattering message about the state and its treatment of all individuals who reside in or visit the state," Robertson warned.

The Nashville LGBT Chamber warned that "if signed into law, these would be the first bathroom bills enacted in any state since 2016 - and in a growing pro-business state like Tennessee, no less."

In 2016, North Carolina passed a bathroom bill into law, sparking a national backlash and boycotts by businesses and sports associations. A year later, it repealed portions of the law.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association has already put Tennessee on notice it could lose sports tournaments coming into Tennessee. Nissan North America, Amazon, Dell, Pilot, Mars PetCare, Warner Music Group and others have objected to the bills Republicans are pushing.

Tennessee Republicans, however, are betting Tennessee's massive incentives provided to companies including Amazon and Oracle, which are locating massive new operations employing thousands of people in Nashville, will ultimately hold business critics in check.

The Tennessee Equality Project, the Human Rights Campaign, other LGBTQ advocates and Nashville's music industry are also opposed to several of the would-be laws.

Lee must sign or veto legislation within 10 days of transmittal to him, excluding Sundays, or it becomes law without his signature.

Another bill that Lee signaled he could sign into law is SB126/HB1027. The amended bill would prohibit a health care professional from prescribing hormone treatment to address issues for "prepubertal minors" except in cases of growth deficiencies or other diagnoses "unrelated to gender dysphoria or gender incongruency."

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin, a pharmacist, is viewed by some as a less draconian approach to another favored by some social conservative lawmakers who want to raise the age restriction to 18.

"This bill protects children from ... their maturity level of being able to decide at 10, 12, 14 to make this kind of life decision," Haile explained when presenting the bill.

Bills that Lee has already signed

Last week, Lee signed a measure restricting who a transgender student athlete can compete against in sporting events, requiring it be determined by a student's biological sex as stated on his or her birth certificate.

A second measure Lee signed last week, SB1229/HB529, sponsored by Rose and Rep. Debra Moody, R-Covington, requires schools to provide parents or guardians of students a heads-up prior to beginning "instruction of a sexual orientation or gender identity curriculum." It also gives adults an option to opt out their children from such instruction.

"That's a bill that gives parents a choice about what their children learn," Lee said in response to questions following his tour of a public charter school in Nashville. "I think parents are a better decider than the government of what they should be taught in school, so it gives parents the options to opt out of particular curriculum."

In response to the alarms raised by the private sector, Lee said "at the end of the day I think it really matters what our business community thinks. I think it matters what organizations think, I think it matters what the citizens think. And at the end of the day the people of Tennessee through their elected officials decide what the law is and that's how it should work and that's how it does work."

The governor added that "elected officials weigh what organizations or what businesses think about individual issues before they make those decisions. But that's what the General Assembly's job is and they've done that."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.